What should the next UK government prioritise? Views from scientists

Leading SGR figures outline some policy recommendations for the incoming British government on issues including climate change, energy, military and security, and AI.

Responsible Science blog
Originally published: 14 June 2024; latest update: 18 June 2024


This blog includes contributions from Stuart Parkinson, Phil Webber, Andrew Simms, Jan Maskell, Keith Baker, and Philip Inglesant.

Dr Stuart Parkinson on reducing carbon emissions:

“Humanity has opened the gates of hell,” said Antonio Guterres at an international climate summit last September. The UN Secretary General used phrases that scientists tend to avoid, but the current speed and scale of the impacts is frightening even leading researchers. The world is now starting to approach environmental ‘tipping points’ which, if passed, would lead to sudden, irreversible climate change across the planet. Our political leaders have yet to grasp how devastating this would be. In the UK, we have already seen the main political parties retreating on their inadequate commitments to reduce carbon emissions due to concerns about cost. But the costs of inaction would be far worse.

On the positive side, there is promising ambition in some parties’ proposals for the expansion of renewable energy, especially offshore wind and solar. A 2030 target for decarbonisation of the electricity grid is the minimum necessary here, and it should include onshore wind – because it’s cheaper – and a range of energy storage technologies, together with the necessary grid upgrades.

But ambition is lacking in all other areas.

A top priority should be a national home retrofit programme – including insulation, heat pumps, and solar photovoltaics. This would offer multiple co-benefits, such as reducing fuel poverty, boosting local employment, and improving national energy security.

Much greater investment is also needed in public transport, cycling, walking, and electric car clubs – as well as a much improved electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Tackling overconsumption by the ‘polluter elite’ could reduce carbon emissions faster than many other options – starting with, for example, bans on private jets and the advertising of high-carbon products, and high penalties for frequent flyers and petrol SUVs. Financial rewards for low-carbon behaviours would also be essential.

We also need to make careful choices about new low-carbon technologies. Promising examples here include green hydrogen, hydrogen-reduced steel, and tidal lagoons. Problematic dead-end technologies promoted by entrenched industrial interests include blue hydrogen, nuclear power, many biofuels, and most proposals for carbon capture and storage.

And, of course, we need an immediate end to new fossil fuel extraction projects, and a rapid phase-out of existing sources – with windfall taxes to help speed up the process. Ambitious plans for ‘difficult’ sectors like agriculture and the military are also critical.

Underlying all these changes is skills development – across science, engineering, and other sectors – supporting employees and employers in a just transition to a sustainable future. It should not be forgotten that the job-creation potential of this transition is enormous.

One overarching policy which would bring many of these elements together is a Climate and Nature Bill – which SGR has endorsed along with over 200 individual scientists and over 700 organisations. We especially urge the next government to enact such a bill.

In short, a climate and nature-friendly future is one that would provide benefits across society – and it needs to be a top priority whoever wins the election.

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of SGR. He has carried out research and advocacy in climate science, technology and policy for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in climate physics, has been an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and is co-author of the book, Flexibility in climate policy.


Dr Phil Webber on security and military issues:

One of the most controversial uses of scientific and engineering expertise is for military activity. This is also where UK government policies have recently failed on many fronts.

Starting with war crimes and other human rights violations, UK arms are currently being exported to Israel and Saudia Arabia – whose forces have committed war crimes in Gaza and Yemen respectively. British-made military equipment is also sold to the oppressive governments in, for example, Qatar and the UAE. Halting such exports should be a priority for the new government.

Then there’s the risk of nuclear war by accident. UK politicians regularly talk of Britain’s nuclear weapons as an ‘ultimate guarantee’ of the nation’s security, ignoring the multiple ways in which the strategy of nuclear deterrence can fail – through both human error and technical error, such as false warnings of attack, especially dangerous during a crisis or ‘hot’ war. Immediate positive policy changes here should include:

  • reversing the recent increase in the number of UK warheads;
  • publicly committing to not hosting US nuclear weapons on British soil;
  • declaring a ‘no first-use’ policy;
  • working for rapid multilateral disarmament through the 2017 UN nuclear ban treaty.

The UK’s nuclear weapons alone are capable of immense destruction. One submarine using a salvo of 40 warheads is capable of destroying up to ten major cities anywhere within its 7,000 mile range.  Millions of people would be killed and huge radioactive no-go areas created. Huge conflagrations combined with intense nuclear fireballs would loft smoke high into the upper atmosphere.  Over the following decade, a ‘nuclear winter’ would follow, with drought and frosts across the northern hemisphere threatening billions with famine.

For the UK it is highly questionable if its nuclear weapons could ever be deliberately used except as part of a disastrous widespread nuclear conflict possibly ending human civilisation.

On military spending, the main political parties have recently been competing with each other over which can promise the largest and quickest increases. But what they fail to mention is that the UK’s military budget alone is already very large, about 70% of that of Russia, or the fact NATO spending dwarfs that of Russia many times over.

But one reason for the large UK budget – and NATO’s – is a focus on incredibly expensive, ‘sophisticated’ armaments systems such as huge aircraft carriers, expensive ship-based missiles, and warplanes. These choices are increasingly proving vulnerable to much cheaper armaments which can be deployed in large numbers. For example, the large NATO naval task force in the Red Sea – which includes British forces – has been combatting Houthi militia firing swarms of drones costing $2,000 - $20,000 with missiles costing about $2m each, which quickly run out, and warplanes costing $50m and some $29,000 an hour to operate. However, many merchant ships have still been sunk and container shipping is down by 90%. The US Navy has reported that it has already expended $1bn on munitions, while a French frigate had to leave the Red Sea after only 71 days, having completely running out of munitions. Meanwhile, in the Ukraine war, expensive Russian warplanes have been effectively countered by much cheaper Ukrainian-operated air defences.

But in the latest UK defence review, rather than concentrating on simpler, cheaper armaments and national (or even regional) defence, the UK has chosen to continue to aim for a ‘global reach’ for ‘force projection’ – for example, military activities in the Indo-Pacific region.

Overall, my conclusion is that the UK focus on an aggressive global military reach is a mistake and that wider security should be improved by tackling climate change and prioritising diplomacy, and that it is in these areas that security spending should be focused.

Dr Philip Webber is a Co-chair of SGR’s Board of Directors. He has carried out research and advocacy on security, science and technology issues for over 40 years. His publications include the books, London after the bomb and New defence strategies for the 1990s, and the SGR report, UK nuclear weapons: a catastrophe in the making? He holds a PhD in physics.


Andrew Simms on Green New Deal policies:

The Green New Deal is a policy package designed to ensure a dynamic economy whilst making a rapid transition that hits critical carbon reduction targets to avoid climate breakdown. It involves large scale public financing that pays for itself in terms of stimulating ‘green collar’ jobs and clean economic activity across sectors ranging from housing to transport, energy and agriculture. The Green New Deal is founded on readily available, mature technologies for household energy retrofit, energy generation, and electric, mass transit and active travel alternatives. Together the approach harnesses a wide range of science and technology skills and incorporates training in mass apprenticeship programmes. Widespread health and well-being benefits also come from reduced pollution, healthier homes and lower energy costs. It’s a package for economic revival at the same time as energy and climate security, and insulation from the geo-political shocks of global fossil fuel markets.

Among major political parties in the UK general election, all agree on one thing – they say they will do everything in their power to boost the national economy. Labour’s call is to go for growth, Conservatives offer tax breaks geared to the wealthy and partly paid for by taking money from welfare spending on the poorest, the Lib Dems a regional industrial strategy, whereas the Green Party promises new public investment into a green, economic transition. The other end of the political spectrum sees extreme voices such as Reform actively rejecting the job opportunities, health and climate benefits of green investment. In this, they echo the Conservative party’s framing of investing in decarbonising the economy as a cost rather than a benefit.

In terms of the Green New Deal, both Labour and Conservative plans are variously limited by self-imposed public spending limits. The Liberal Democrats are bolder and the Greens offer a £40 billion annual public spending plan that would finance a Green New Deal programme.

Research by the London School of Economics and Cambridge University in early 2024 said increased public green investment  of 1% of GDP was needed, amounting to £26 billion annually, to make up for lost time, and that this would crowd-in the equivalent of a further £51 billion from the private sector.

Considering this, and Labour’s abandonment of its initial pledge to invest £28 billion annually on green economic initiatives, the Green New Deal Group estimate that over £150 billion per year could be found, relatively easily to pay for the policy: just over £50 billion from changes to personal and corporate taxes, and closing loopholes to the oil and gas industries that work as hidden subsidies; and £100 billion from placing a green investment requirement on savings vehicles like ISAs and some pension contributions that enjoy tax breaks.

But perhaps the most important message in the UK election is that failure to pay for a Green New Deal will prove very expensive. New research published in May 2024 found that “the macroeconomic damages from climate change are six times larger than previously thought”, and that followed earlier work that found the costs of climate damage will be six times higher than the amount needed to invest to keep global heating below the 2°C level.

Andrew Simms is Assistant Director of SGR. He is also Co-director of the New Weather Institute, Co-ordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author of books including Cancel the Apocalypse and Badvertising, and a co-author of the original Green New Deal. His background is in political economics and development studies.


Dr Jan Maskell on environmental behaviour change:

Behaviour change has long been neglected as a policy tool for helping to tackle the climate crisis, in both Britain and elsewhere. One of the key messages from a recent report by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – the UK government’s advisory body – was the need to “Empower and inform households and communities to make low-carbon choices. Despite some positive steps to provide households with advice on reducing energy use in the last year, a coherent public engagement strategy on climate action is long overdue.”

To achieve the necessary climate action, a combination of technology and behaviour change is needed. The next government needs to develop a strategy including both, and the CCC’s recommendations are a good starting point. Examples of household and community behaviour change have been achieved before and demonstrated through, for example, the implementation of low emission zones in cities, and the plastic bag charge. Low carbon climate behaviours are needed in many areas, for example: consumption and waste – reducing what people buy and encouraging more re-use, re-purposing and recycling; energy use – mandating low carbon heating systems (e.g. heat pumps) for individuals and community systems; transport – disincentives for car ownership and flying, and further incentives for active travel (including making walking and cycling the default choices); and food – promoting healthy, nutritious, and environmentally sustainable diets, and taxing high-carbon ultra-processed food.

The target behaviours to be addressed need to be identified and prioritised in terms of low carbon behaviours and acceptability, then a combination of legislation and ‘nudges’ developed. The co-benefits of these behaviours are also important considerations in their implementation. For example, there are health benefits from active travel and improved air quality, and financial benefits for households from reducing spending on high-carbon products.

As the CCC report recommended, there needs to be public engagement to “support people to make these choices including through regulation and incentives. Government should lead by example by visibly adopting these green choices.”

Dr Jan Maskell is a Co-chair of SGR’s Board of Directors. She is an Occupational Psychologist with 25 years' experience. She is also a Sustainability Consultant who supports organisations to implement their Environmental Management Systems and individuals to reduce their environmental impact.


Dr Keith Baker on a publicly-owned energy company:

One of the proudest moments in my career was when, after years of arguing for the establishment of a Scottish publicly-owned energy company, I received the news that the Welsh Government had gone ahead and adopted Common Weal’s model for their own company, Ynni Cymru. So, when Labour announced their plan to establish GB Energy and base it in Aberdeen, I was really pleased.

However, the latest news indicates that the policy has disintegrated. Of the three options that I understand are on the table, one sounds like a quango – so not technically a company – and the other two sound scarily like the return of the much-criticised Private Financing Initiative of the previous Labour government. Only one of the three sounds anything like an energy company. And none are limited to renewables – with the big worry being that the ‘investment vehicle’ option could end up losing billions underwriting new nuclear build.

I want to see a public energy company that develops renewable energy projects and, critically, the infrastructure needed to support them, and retains at least a majority share in them. It should be the developer of first resort for projects, such as district heating systems, that are less attractive to investors because of their long payback periods, but which will address social issues such as fuel poverty as well as reducing carbon emissions. Following Wales’s lead, it should start small and be focussed on those projects that deliver measurable benefits to those most in need rather than trying to be everything to everybody.

Under the Conservatives we have seen councils declare climate and ecological emergencies, and now we’re seeing them declare housing emergencies. How long will it be before they start declaring energy and infrastructure emergencies? Labour’s original proposals for GB Energy showed a lot of promise. If the opinion polls are right and they do win the general election, they will need to be brave, stick with these proposals, and learn from what their colleagues in Wales have been doing.      

Dr Keith Baker is a Researcher in Fuel Poverty and Energy Policy at the Built Environment Asset Management Centre, Glasgow Caledonian University. He is also a member of SGR’s Board of Directors, and Convenor of the Energy Working Group within Common Weal.


Dr Philip Inglesant on AI:

Artificial Intelligence is everywhere. AI has seized the public imagination with Large Language Models, which are able interact in seemingly human-like ways and to produce credible, if not very imaginative, answers to everyday questions. But AI is rapidly encroaching on decisions that affect our lives in large and small ways, from who we get to see as friends on social media to the medical treatment we receive to decisions on whether to give us a bank loan or shortlist us for a job application.

There are well-known risks from AI: bias; security and privacy; lack of transparency; unaccountability; and incontestability. But there are broader implications, for democracy and for society, as we have seen with social media. AI and facial recognition can be used for repressive policing. And AI also has terrible military applications, including ‘killer drones’.

The Conservative government has taken a ‘pro-innovation’ approach to AI regulation, mainly using existing regulatory frameworks. However, this misses the point that Big Tech such as AI always tends to monopolisation by a handful of large companies, and these will always seek to monetise their products rather than to provide socially-beneficial services.

Would Labour be much better? Their manifesto has little to say about AI, and, like the Conservatives, promises to drive innovation in technology. However, it does acknowledge the inadequacy of current regulators to deal with rapid technological development, and says they will introduce binding regulation on the most powerful AI companies. Nevertheless, Labour seems increasingly controlled by centrists who have the ear of the likes of the Tony Blair Institute and want to ‘cut red tape’ for tech firms. They seem likely to have more influence than its traditional trade union backers.

We should urge the next government at least to prioritise the rights of citizens over the increasingly powerful corporate agenda.

Dr Philip Inglesant teaches and researches Responsible Innovation in areas including AI, quantum computing, and information technologies more broadly. He is an Advisor to SGR’s Board of Directors.


[image credit: C Archer]